The EU Social Justice Index developed by the Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation does not make for smiley reading in Ireland. Ireland is ranked 18th out of 28 countries, well below the EU average. The top three countries for social justice are Sweden, Finland and Denmark. (Chart 2 shows the overall rankings). The Index draws a number of wide-ranging conclusions which include the following:
• Europe is making progress in terms of economic stabilisation, but the level of social justice has declined in recent years in most EU member states.
• The comparisons between the 28 member states clearly shows that the concept of social justice is realised to very different extents.
• EU member states vary considerably in their ability to create a truly inclusive society.
• Social injustice has increased in recent years most in crisis-hit countries including Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Hungary and Portugal.
The Index investigates six different dimensions of social justice: poverty, education, employment, health, social cohesion and non-discrimination and inter-generational justice, across the 28 EU member states. The strengths of the Index include its holistic approach to examining a broad range of indicators that are compared across member states and its evidence-based approach to assessing the levels of social justice across the EU. It is informed by a paradigm that requires a strong state to focus on improving social equity as a means of realising equal opportunities and life chances.
This approach has limitations because it does not zero in sufficiently on the structures that give rise to and perpetuate inequality in society. Equal opportunities do not always lead to equal outcomes. However, notwithstanding these limitations, the Index provides an evidence-based approach to social-policy change in the EU and the poor performance on specific indicators should be used as a roadmap to guide the Irish Government on the specific areas of policy where improvements are necessary.
For poverty prevention Ireland is ranked 21st out of 28 countries. The most striking feature of Ireland’s performance here is the fact we have a significantly higher proportion of the population living in workless households or households with low-work-intensity (e.g. part-time work) than all other 28 member states. This has a knock-on effect on the level of household income and the standard of living that can be achieved. In general, poverty is a consequence of weak policymaking in areas such as education and the labour market. These areas are central to addressing Ireland’s low level of poverty prevention.
For education, Ireland is ranked 22nd out of 28 countries. Ireland is above the EU average in preventing early school leaving. However, we spend less than any other EU country on pre-primary education. Budget 2015 failed to advance this issue in any way. The report notes that early and well-targeted investments in the youngest members of their societies are not only morally sound, but also economically productive.
In the area of employment, a majority of EU countries have suffered a deterioration in labour-market access opportunities as a result of the crisis. Ireland ranks 15th out of 28 countries, which is slightly above the EU average. The EU-wide problems in the labour market are above all evident in the unequal distribution of access to decent jobs, with good pay and conditions, for various at-risk groups.
Unemployment among young people and low-skilled workers is a particular problem across the EU. This situation has resulted in extremely high rates of long-term unemployment, which greatly increase the risk of poverty and social exclusion. While we have seen much needed improvement in the labour market in Ireland, we still have almost 250,000 people unemployed and over half of these are long-term unemployed. Unemployment of young people remains high, at over 20%, and more than one in five young people is not in education, employment or training.
Ireland compares better with other European countries for health where it is ranked 13th out of the 28 countries. However, the quality and inclusiveness of health services varies greatly in Ireland and in other countries that perform relatively well in health. The Irish health system is a complicated mix of public, private and voluntary care providers, with unfair, unclear and complex routes in and through the system for the users of health services.
For social cohesion and non-discrimination Ireland performs above the EU average, and is ranked 11th out of 28 countries. The report emphasises the efficacy of strict anti-discrimination laws and the role of the Equality Authority in this regard. However, it remains to be seen if Ireland will maintain its strong performance in this area following the cutbacks to bodies charged with addressing discrimination, and the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority.
The final dimension of the Index is inter-generational justice. This includes a variety of indicators across a number of areas including family policy, pension policy, the environment, research and development spending, Government debt and old-age dependency. Ireland is ranked 19th out of the 28 countries. Our general level of gross debt is a significant factor, as the debt burden taken on during the financial crisis will pass to the next generation, at the expense of investment in areas such as infrastructure, education and health.
The Social Justice Index considers how differences in social justice within Europe can be explained. It asks if some countries are more socially just simply because they are economically stronger overall? Countries with a higher economic performance are, on average, also more socially just. However, there are differences. The Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia, in particular, show that a comparatively high degree of social justice is possible despite having an average economic performance. These countries appear more effective in translating economic strength into fairness within society. They illustrate the fact that social policy – besides economic productivity – plays a critical role in achieving social justice. (See Chart 1).
In contrast to these countries, Ireland’s GDP per capita is similar to Germany or Sweden, the top performers in terms of social justice. However, Ireland is well below the European Union average with regard to social justice despite having a relatively high GDP. Ireland is the only country in the EU with the characteristics of relatively high GDP and below average Social Justice Index ranking. (See Chart 1).
In 2014, Ireland’s GDP is set to exceed forecasts and the public finances are stabilising. New figures from the Central Bank show that the total net worth of individuals in Ireland now stands at €508.5 billion or €110,312 per capita. This has been increasing steadily for the last two years. However, the current figure is still down from the peak of €719 billion in mid-2007.
Ireland is a wealthy country and our wealth is growing. At the same time, our policies aimed at combating social injustice are dis-improving, particularly in the areas of poverty prevention, education, employment and inter-generational justice. This mismatch can only be addressed through integrated social and economic policies and investment strategies that promote social justice and economic growth in equal measure.
Research from the OECD (2013), ‘Reconciling Consolidation with Growth and Equity’, shows the most damaging fiscal-consolidation measures are cuts to education and cuts to childcare and family supports. These types of cuts are particularly damaging because they deprive many children and adults of the opportunity to participate fully in society. In economic terms, these cuts hinder the formation of human capital and result in lower output per capita in the long-term.
There is a strong moral and economic case for the Government to fund an ambitious programme of public investment focused on areas such as infrastructure, social housing, education (especially in early years) and employment services and supports. The case for investment is further strengthened by the current low cost of borrowing. In the long-term the economy will benefit because this investment increases the potential capacity of the economy.
If Ireland is going to reverse its slide down the Social Justice Index, this is the type of action that is required. The Index shows us that other EU countries are achieving better results with fewer resources. Do we have the political will to make it happen? •